Tea is vulnerable to air, moisture, light, strong aromas and heat so needs to be stored correctly whether it’s in the form of loose tea or tea bags. The average kitchen suffers from all these problems so it may not be the best place to store your tea. Find out some important things to do and things not to do here.
- Tea leaves are like sponges: they will soak up any flavours or odours that come into contact with them.
- Dried tea leaves are not, however, completely dry: they contain about 3% moisture and volatile oils which will evaporate if they are not stored correctly.
- Pu-erh tea is somewhat different from all other teas. As it is an aged tea, it needs air to keep it drinkable. A cloth bag inside earthenware or terracotta container is a good option. A plain paper bag would probably do the job just as well.
- Tea that is in cake or brick form is usually best left like that until it’s time to make tea from it. However, there are some Pu-erh teas that would benefit from being broken up and allowed to get some air. Buy your Pu-erh from a reputable vendor and ask them for guidance if you’re unsure.
As ever, be guided by your vendor and follow any best before date on the packaging. If, however, you have lost the packaging, the following guidelines should help:
- Green tea has the shortest shelf life of around 6 to 8 months. Matcha, or any other powdered tea, will usually have an even shorter shelf life.
- White tea has a shelf life of up to 1 year.
- Oolong tea has a shelf life of 1 to 2 years.
- Black tea has a shelf life of 2 years or more. However, if it is flavoured, for example as with Earl Grey, or has added spices or fruits, these may break down more quickly.
- Pu-erh tea is much more variable in its shelf life depending on whether it is raw, ripened and how aged it is so be guided by your tea vendor.
- Yerba mate is usually aged before packaging and has a shelf life of at least a year.
- Herbal teas will also vary greatly depending on their content but most will have a relatively short shelf life of around 6 months.
- Teas that are a mixture of ingredients will have their shelf life determined by the ingredient with the shortest shelf life.
In order that your tea taste as fresh as possible for as long as possible, follow these guidelines:
- Buy fresh tea: with the exception of some aged varieties (mainly Pu-erh) which have been allowed to mature under tightly controlled conditions, always use the freshest tea possible, preferably from this year’s harvest. This gives the tea the best chance of lasting until its best before date.
- Keep it cool: store in a cool, dry area, ideally a cupboard away from any spices and any source of heat.
- Seal it: make sure that the tea leaves are kept in a container with an airtight seal otherwise the tea may become stale or even mouldy.
- Keep it dark: Store in an opaque container, preferably a caddy made of ceramic, tin or stainless steel.
- Buy in small quantities: Take advantage of sample sizes and taster packs. Large amounts of tea will be more likely to lose their flavour by the time they’re used up. Better to buy little and often.
- Refrigerate or freeze: fridges are damp and the tea will absorb the moisture. Freezers are also surprisingly damp and the freezing process will damage the leaves and alter the flavour.
- Store in a see-through container: the light will degrade the leaves more quickly causing the flavour and colour to change. Tea is sometimes sold in clear glass jars. While these look pretty, and it allows you to see the tea that you’re buying, it’s really not a great option unless you store the jar in a cupboard. Even then, blocking out the light would make the tea last for longer.
- Store in plastic: plastic is not airtight, it allows gases to and to enter. If the plastic is not BPA free there is a good chance that the oils in the tea will dissolve some of the BPA. And then there’s the problem of microplastics which are present on the surface of every plastic, no matter how “clean” you think it is.
- Store different flavours in one container: the flavours will start to merge together. Just one Earl Grey tea bag is enough to make a whole cannister of plain black tea take on its flavour. Sheng and Shu Pu-erh teas should also be stored separately from each other because they are very different teas and should be kept that way.
- Store with spices. Unless all of your tea is going to be turned into spicy chai, don’t store tea with spices because the tea leaves will absorb the flavours.
- Store in unlined wooden containers. Wooden containers are rarely airtight unless they have been made especially for the purpose of food storage. Even then I would be concerned about the oils in the tea leaves being absorbed by the wood.
- Buy or use old tea. Always follow the vendor’s guidance as to the shelf life of a particular tea. When it goes past this date it’s not likely to do you any harm but it just won’t taste very good. Green tea, in particular, tends to either quickly lose all flavour or become horribly bitter when it has been stored for too long.
- Keep above the hob or oven. Repeatedly warming the tea will weaken the flavour and make it go stale much more quickly.
- Be over-enthusiastic in your buying. Try not to buy every tea you like the sound of as soon as you find out about it. Be realistic about the amount of tea you can drink rather than having a cupboard overflowing with tea that won’t be used before it starts to go stale.
What to do with leftover tea
Tea that has gone past its best needn’t be thrown away: it has a variety of uses around the home and garden.
Tea storage ideas
The best way to store tea is in a traditional tea caddy made of tin or ceramic. These can look attractive as well as performing a useful function. I favour an airtight metal tin with an inner, refillable BPA-free food-safe plastic bag.